Philly. A World Heritage City

Friday evening, I attended the Philadelphia World Heritage City Movie premiere hosted at the Center for Architecture and Design. The movie premiere was part of a celebration of Philadelphia becoming a World Heritage City, a designation achieved in November 2015. Yes, that’s right, Philadelphia is now ranked among the other 266 cities in the world that are designated as World Heritage Cities.

We all know that Philadelphia is old – very old, older than this country in fact. We also know that Philadelphia is rich in its colonial and revolutionary history, it is , after all, the birthplace of our nation. However, what I didn’t know about this historic city is the story of its neighborhoods, urban development, and industrial significance – something that many people, both local and visitor, aren’t aware of either.

So What Is A World Heritage City?

Many are familiar with the acronym UNESCO, which stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Unfortunately, many know about this organization due to recent international news regarding the destruction of World Heritage Sites in the war-torn Middle East. But, in any event, UNESCO’s primary goal is the preservation of historically significant locations around the world. They are a specialized agency of the United Nations and are responsible for designating various culturally important natural and built locations across the globe as “World Heritage Sites.” There are currently 1031 spread across 163 countries. Of these, 23 are in the United States and only 6 are buildings (the remaining are natural sites.) Philadelphia’s Independence Hall is one of these buildings, with the next closest geographically being the Statue of Liberty. While this designation is critical to the preservation of the birthplace of this county, it only protects one small portion of our great city. Luckily, a similar organization was founded in 1991 to establish a system to help protect and preserve entire culturally and historically significant urban areas: the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC.)

Before attending Friday’s event, I really didn’t know what this meant – that is, what it means to be part of and live in a World Heritage City. Hosted at the AIA Center for Architecture and Design on Arch Street, the event (one of few to be hosted throughout Philly), exhibited various culturally significant buildings and public spaces. A half-hour film by Sam Katz, narrated by University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Dr. David Brownlee, documented the rich history of Philadelphia. The film explored the colonial formation of the city grid, the outlying neighborhoods which are now dense cultural clusters, and the industrial age that urbanized much of what we now consider to be Philadelphia – most notably The Navy Yard and the hills of Manayunk. As the film points out, Philadelphia is the birthplace of much more than just our nation. It is the home of founding concepts of religious tolerance and liberty, groundbreaking strides in urban planning, political freedom, medicine, democracy, and human rights – just to name a few.

But being a World Heritage City goes much further than simply putting up a plaque and calling it a day. The organization that tirelessly applied and lobbied for this designation, Global Philadelphia Association, has been working for years to raise the awareness and funding to support such a distinguished title. They have been working closely with the city and local government to introduce new programs for the various communities that call Philly home. The first step was to become an Observing Member of OWHC for two years, which started in 2013. Following a conference in Arequipa, Peru in 2015 and fulfilling a whole slew of other checkboxes, Philadelphia was granted its designation, and get this, it’s the first in the United States.

So What Are Some Of The Goals Of This Program? What Is It All For?

It would create an opportunity to bring more attention to Philadelphia and be a symbol of the regeneration underway and of the changing status of the City at the national and international levels.

Becoming a World Heritage City is a big deal. It means that Philadelphia’s international recognition will be on the rise. Estimates show that more than $150 million in economic growth is expected based on increased tourism alone – and tourism is just one aspect of this venture. Others include educational tools for teachers to broaden the understanding of Philadelphia’s rich culture. There are programs to involve the various neighborhoods in international events providing locals with a platform for dialogue and resources for economic growth. Most importantly though, the designation is great for Philadelphia because it presents this city as important, culturally historic, and extroverted on an international scale. It is the hope of many at the organization that Philadelphians will gain a better sense of pride in their city and an encouragement to maintain it, respect it, and to ultimately improve all aspects of life here.

Having recently moved back to Philly from New York City, experiencing a resurgence in my home city is refreshing and, quite frankly, much needed. There is still much to do, but I think this designation is evidence that Philadelphia is on the rise – it’s only up from here.